Underground Hamburg: ElbTunnel & St Nikolai Museum

Because we saw so many other things in Hamburg besides the three museums that were large enough to merit their own posts, I’ve decided to do something a bit different than my usual mop-up posts and split them into two posts roughly defined by subject matter. This is the underground side of Hamburg, and I don’t mean the U-Bahn, though it was super handy and we used it a lot, or Hamburg’s notorious sex district (which we obviously didn’t visit, though I don’t think female tourists are allowed in one of the areas anyway, which is pretty messed up), but attractions that are literally underground.

The first of these is the Alter ElbTunnel (also called St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel), which is not so much a tourist attraction as a practical way for people to get from one side of the river to the other, as indeed many of the people down there seemed to be doing. In fact, I like to think of it as what the Thames Tunnel could have been if safe lifts had been invented at the time of its construction, so it would have had a practical use which would have given it a hope of surviving (though obviously I would have loved to have visited it in its heyday in any capacity). The ElbTunnel opened in 1911, and was apparently modelled on Glasgow’s Clyde Tunnel, which I have never visited.

The tunnel is free to use for pedestrians and cyclists, but there is a small charge for cars (though there’s no point driving through it unless you are just using it to get from point A to point B, as you’d miss all the lovely terracotta ornamentation). Access on foot is via one of four lifts (two on each side, and they have a separate giant lift for cars) or a big metal staircase, and we opted for the staircase, somewhat to my chagrin, as I’ve got a little bit of a thing about heights (doesn’t stop me from going up tall things, but I don’t actually enjoy being up there), and I would have felt a whole lot better if the staircase had been visibly supported by something more than a handful of steel girders. It was worth seeing from a (scary) height though, so much so that I took the stairs down again on the return trip. Probably best to opt for the lift on the way up though, as there’s a LOT of stairs.

The main reason for going down at all, in fact, other than the views of Hamburg from the south side of the tunnel, are the aforementioned fabulous maritime-themed decorations that line the tunnel, which you can see above in collage form. I particularly liked the rats with the old boot. The tunnel was bombed during WWII, but the tiles managed to survive, and obviously still delight to this day.

The other underground(ish) attraction I wanted to talk about is the St. Nikolai Memorial and Museum, which was largely destroyed during WWII. The remaining spire of this church is clearly very much not underground, and is a prominent part of Hamburg’s skyline. However, the museum is underground, being housed in the former crypt, so I think I can get away with this somewhat tenuous link. (Whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.) Admission to the tower/museum is €5, and you get a euro off if you have the Hamburg Card. We waited a short amount of time to ascend to the top of the tower in the lift, which was somewhat underwhelming, as you’re still inside the tower at the top, and there’s no viewing platform or anything (and if you thought Hamburg was cold at ground level, just try it at 76 metres). I couldn’t wait to get into the museum, which was substantially warmer.

The museum talks about the events leading up to Operation Gommorah in 1943, as well as the bombing itself, which destroyed much of Hamburg, including the rest of St. Nikolai Church, and killed 35,000 people. This was a much more comprehensive exhibition than I was expecting, and really got into the history of the church (interestingly, the minister at St. Nikolai when the Nazis first took power was a liberal who was sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis and tried to help them. After he died (of natural causes), he was replaced by someone much more conservative), which was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott (Sr) in 1846 (the iconic spire is still the tallest church tower in Germany, and the fifth tallest in the world), as well as what living conditions for civilians were like at the time of the bombing, including the fact that though there were public bomb shelters, the few Jewish citizens who had been permitted to remain in the city were not permitted access to them.

This was actually a very interesting museum – I liked that it talked about how people trying to hide from the Nazis could use the chaos resulting from the bombing to flee the city and assume new identities somewhere else – and it had a fair amount of wartime photographs and artefacts. The decision was made after the war to preserve the church’s spire in its blackened state to serve as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. As part of the memorial, there have been some sculptures placed in the former churchyard of various despairing figures that some people were rather inappropriately trying to take smiling selfies with when I was there.

I’m glad we paid St. Nikolai Memorial a visit – it was interesting to get a German perspective on the bombings, since you don’t always see the aftermath when you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Allies (other than when Germany bombed Britain, of course), and it was well worth €5 for the museum, even though the trip up the tower was less impressive than I had hoped.




  1. Nice post. I enjoyed reading about Hamburg and its subterranean places. Might have to go sometime. Tenuous connections keep my blogging going so don’t worry about it!

  2. I was a bit confused by the tunnel reference as the Clyde Tunnel only opened in the 60s. Then I remembered the Glasgow Harbour Tunnel which is Victorian and must be what they mean. Unfortunately it’s no longer accessible – I’d love to see it. On the other hand, I have once been through the pedestrian part of the Clyde Tunnel and wouldn’t care to repeat it!

  3. The underground tunnel is great. I would totally put that on my to do list if I’m ever in Hamburg. I love stuff like that – climbing up staircases to lookouts, exploring tunnels, walking over bridges. But, not idea why – because, like you, I am scared of heights – with some claustrophobia thrown in. I’ve come down many a staircase on my butt, but somehow I always convince myself that the next time will be better. After crossing on foot, I might have to rent a car, just so I can take it in the giant elevator. Probably less exciting than it sounds, but still…

    1. Yeah, I once talked myself into going on a high ropes course, and then clung to a tree the entire time I was up there. I imagine going in one of those car lifts is like a shortened version of taking a car through the Channel Tunnel, when you’re loaded onto this weird giant shuttle train, and spend the entire time across sitting in your car, staring at the walls of the train. Not actually that fun!

  4. I loved that tunnel stairwell right off, but it really does look kinda scary. In person, it would’ve definitely given me pause – so bravo for taking it both ways.
    I’m pretty amazed that there’s no sign of graffiti inside the tunnel – it looks so pristine. Makes me wonder if there’s no spray-happy youth or if their cleaning crew’s on high alert.
    The museum in the crypt sounds and looks wonderful. (Minus the people taking selfies with the figures, of course.) I’d love to see it someday.

    1. The tunnel was well lit and pretty busy, and there were guards standing at either end to operate the car lifts, so maybe there’s no chance to graffiti. There was certainly graffiti a plenty in the rest of Hamburg (and so many cigarette butts! Gross).

  5. Both of these sound really interesting. I never thought about the horror and chaos of war having an up-side — the ability to get out of town and become some else, some place safer. Have you seen the church tower like this in Berlin? There the contrast between the interior and exterior is really dramatic. I think somehow I always think that ruins always looked kind of ruined, even when they weren’t!

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